Sunday, August 12, 2018

It's Obvious Now, But Back Then...

A modern reader coming upon William Sloane's novel To Walk the Night will know almost from the outset what's going on -- an inter-dimensional being taking over a human body and using it to explore our mundane world. After all, we've seen the same situation in dozens of films and in even more books. Sometimes we call them inter-dimensional beings, sometimes aliens; at times we even call them demons as William Peter Blatty did. But Sloane's novel does not have behind it a corpus of literary traditions for it was published in 1937. Just a year before, HP Lovecraft published The Shadow Out of Time, also the story of a human taken over by a non-human intellect, but the reader of the day was mostly ignorant of science fiction, except, of course, for that "crazy Buck Rogers stuff."

In those days before genres came to dominate all, authors and publishers could sometimes walk the line between literary forms. There is no doubt that To Walk the Night is a science fiction novel with overtones of cosmic horror, but it also has a locked room murder mystery. I doubt there was much hope in 1937 in marketing it as a science fiction novel. Instead, the publisher put it forth as a mystery novel. Readers liked his writing but were confused, as were critics of the day.

Now, there's nothing really wrong with making that call. I could certainly mount a good argument in favor of it -- locked room murder, a missing girl, a complex cosmic puzzle to be solved with lots of clues and red herrings. Ultimately, however, it is a science fiction novel. The strongest argument of it being a mystery, the locked room murder, is solved toward the end with a tossed-off comment that makes perfect sense within the context of the novel, but none at all outside it. An idiot (clinical term) is missing but the reader knows immediately that the missing girl and the dead professor's mysterious wife are the same person, though everyone in the book seems baffled. As to the solution of the complex cosmic puzzle, we know it almost as soon as we get all the characters sorted out, but we listen simply for the sheer beauty and power of Sloane's writing.

The pacing is a little slow for modern tastes, but anyone who watched British films such as Night of the Demon or Night of the Eagle (Burn, Witch, Burn!) will appreciate its subtle approach, its sense of mounting horror. Get sucked into the story and you'll even forget that you know more what's going on than the characters.

The book is out of print, but is, I think, available in digital format. It was also published with another of Sloane's mystery/science fiction/horror novels, The Edge of Running Water under the omnibus title The Rim of Morning, an edition well worth hunting for.

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